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The CSG rendering library

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Latest release: OpenCSG 1.6.0 (15-Sep-2023)


OpenCSG is a library that does image-based CSG rendering using OpenGL. OpenCSG is written in C++ and supports most modern graphics hardware using Microsoft Windows or the Linux operating system. OpenCSG-1.6.0 is the current version.

What is CSG, anyway? CSG is short for Constructive Solid Geometry and denotes an approach to model complex 3D-shapes using simpler ones. I.e., two shapes can be combined by taking the union of them, by intersecting them, or by subtracting one shape of the other. The most basic shapes, which are not result of such a CSG operation, are called primitives. Primitives must be solid, i.e., they must have a clearly defined interior and exterior. By construction, a CSG shape is also solid then.

Image-based CSG rendering (also z-buffer CSG rendering) is a term for algorithms that render CSG shapes without an explicit calculation of the geometric boundary of a CSG shape. Such algorithms use frame-buffer settings of the graphics hardware, e.g., the depth and stencil buffer, to compose CSG shapes. OpenCSG implements a variety of those algorithms, namely the Goldfeather algorithm and the SCS algorithm, both of them in several variants.

CSG grid


CSG is often used as fundamental modeling technique in CAD/CAM applications. Here, image-based CSG rendering is the key to interactively manipulate CSG shapes. Since OpenCSG renders even complex CSG shapes fast, it can be advantageously used in such applications.

Raytracers such as PovRay have used CSG for shape modeling since long ago. Interactive modeling toolkits for such raytracers normally just ignore CSG commands, though. OpenCSG represents a valuable addition for such applications.

Before OpenCSG, CSG rendering has been hardly used in interactive applications, since the necessary algorithms are complicated and error-prone. By providing a free library that is easy to use, fast, and portable, OpenCSG has helped making CSG rendering more mainstream than it was in the past.

CSG columns


The OpenCSG library requires OpenGL and graphics hardware that runs OpenGL well. Note that OpenGL ES is currently not supported. The OpenGL implementation must provide frame buffer objects.

Frame buffer objects are a more recent extension for OpenGL. They are easy to develop for, and can be nowadays considered mature. They are also part of OpenGL 3.0. Beginning with OpenCSG 1.2.0, they are used by default.

In older versions, PBuffers were required to run OpenCSG. PBuffers are probably deprecated nowadays, and since OpenCSG version 1.6.0, they are no longer supported.

OpenCSG is written in C++, uses namespaces and requires the STL. It compiles with all reasonable C++ compilers such as gcc, Clang, or Microsoft Visual Studio. Workspaces for Visual Studio 2022, Visual C++ 6. and Dev-C++ 5.11 are provided. Under Linux, any gcc compiler starting from version 3.0 will work.

OpenCSG has been sucessfully run on Intel and AMD CPUs. Generally, NVidia and AMD graphics hardware is well supported, and hardware where OpenCSG successfully has been run on includes everything that has been produced in the last 15 years.

On graphics hardware from Intel, OpenCSG did not work so well in the past. Recent OpenCSG versions contain fixes and workarounds for some bugs reported for Intel hardware. It seems that most issues have been fixed now. Still, generally, use the most recent graphics drivers, in particular for older HD 3000 or HD 4000 hardware. Also, the (non-default) Goldfeather rendering path generally appears to produce more robust rendering results compared to the SCS rendering path.

CSG convace shape


The interface of OpenCSG is very easy to use. There is only a single abstract class called OpenCSG::Primitive. A Primitive object has an attribute Operation that denotes whether the primitive is intersected or subtracted. To use OpenCSG, create a derived concrete primitive class by implementing the render() method.

To actually do the CSG rendering, there is the function OpenCSG::render() that takes a std::vector<Primitive*> as argument. The render function evaluates the CSG expression given by the array of primitives and initializes the z-buffer with the proper values for the CSG expression. The color buffer remains unchanged, so afterwards, you must shade the primitives in the array using a GL_EQUAL depth function.

Note that the render function does not evaluate a generic CSG tree that also would contain unions of CSG shapes. It has been shown that a generic CSG tree can be converted into an equivalent set of CSG expressions that the render function can handle. OpenCSG does not contain the functionality for this conversion since, after all, it is a rendering library.

Here is the complete interface of OpenCSG:

namespace OpenCSG {

  enum Operation { Intersection, Subtraction };

  class Primitive {
   Primitive(Operation, unsigned int convexity);
   virtual ~Primitive();

   void setOperation(Operation);
   Operation getOperation() const;

   void setConvexity(unsigned int);
   unsigned int getConvexity() const;

   void setBoundingBox(float minx, float miny, float minz,
     float maxx, float maxy, float maxz);
   void getBoundingBox(float& minx, float& miny, float& minz,
     float& maxx, float& maxy, float& maxz) const;

   virtual void render() = 0;

  enum OptionType {

  void setOption(OptionType option, int newSetting);
  int getOption(OptionType option);

  enum Algorithm { Automatic, Goldfeather, SCS };
  enum DepthComplexityAlgorithm { NoDepthComplexitySampling, OcclusionQuery, DepthComplexitySampling };
  enum OffscreenType { AutomaticOffscreenType, FrameBufferObject, FrameBufferObjectARB, FrameBufferObjectEXT };
  enum Optimization { OptimizationDefault, OptimizationDefault, OptimizationOn, OptimizationOff };

  void render(const std::vector<Primitive*>& primitives);

  void setContext(int context);
  int getContext();
  void freeResources();

The convexity of a primitive is the maximum number of front (or back) faces of the primitive at a single position. For example, the convexity of a sphere is one and the convexity of a torus is two. Actually the convexity attribute is currently only used in the standard Goldfeather algorithm. For this algorithm, a convexity too low may result in rendering errors, a convexity too high will reduce rendering performance. The other Goldfeather variants render primitives of any convexity correctly without analyzing the convexity attribute. The SCS algorithms, on the other hand, can only handle primitives that have a convexity of one, else they produce rendering errors. Hence, SCS algorithms do not check this attribute.

The bounding box of the primitive can be provided using normal device coordinates, i.e., after transforming the primitive with modelview and projection transformation. It is not necessary to set the bounding box, but it allows for various performance optimizations.

The abstract render method of the primitive is implemented in a derived class. Your implementation must not alter the modelview or projection matrix (use glPushMatrix / glPopMatrix if in doubt). Also you must not change the primary color in your implementation, since OpenCSG uses it internally (in all rendering algorithms). For best performance, you should only transmit vertex positions; no normals, texture coordinates, or whatever else.

The render function performs, as said above, z-shading of a CSG expression. The content of the stencil buffer is destroyed when handling concave primitives or when using the DepthComplexitySampling strategy.

Using the functions setOption() / getOption() you can control and ask for certain settings used when rendering a CSG expression. You can specify the Algorithm, the method of depth complexity usage and the type of offscreen buffer.

The Algorithm parameter specifies the method used for CSG rendering. Besides Goldfeather and SCS, you can also choose Automatic: This setting chooses the Goldfeather algorithm if the primitive array contains concave primitives, else it chooses SCS. The automatic setting also sets the DepthComplexityAlgorithm (NoDepthComplexitySampling for arrays with few primitives, else OcclusionQuery or at the last resort DepthComplexitySampling).

Aforesaid means that it is, currently, not possible to do CSG rendering of concave primitives and preserving the stencil buffer. I am looking for ways to change this situation (The ARB_buffer_region extension appears to be a possible way for this).

If the Automatic setting is not used, the DepthComplexityAlgorithm parameter specifies the strategy for profiting from depth complexity.

The offscreen type specifies what kind of offscreen buffer OpenCSG uses for internal CSG calculations. This setting is kind of obsolete with the removal of the PBuffer option, that was removed in version 1.6.0. The default AutomaticOffscreenType, and also the setting FrameBufferObject preferably use, if the required OpenGL extensions are available, FrameBufferObjectARB, then FrameBufferObjectEXT. The remaining settings FrameBufferObjectARB, and FrameBufferObjectEXT directly map to the usage of the corresponding OpenGL extension.

The depth bounds optimization improves the rendering performance by using the OpenGL extension GL_EXT_depth_bounds_test to restrict rendering to only the depth range indicated by the bounding box of a primitive. This optimization is, by default, turned off. If you enable it, ensure that the z-ranges of the bounding boxes are large enough, otherwise they will not be correctly rendered. The gains you will get from this optimization is probably only small.

OpenCSG creates, and reuses between different render() calls, various OpenGL resources such as frame buffer objects. This may be a problem in MDI applications with several OpenGL windows, of which the OpenGL contexts are not shared. In this case, OpenGL resources allocated in one OpenGL context cannot be reused with another context, so OpenCSG would produce rendering errors. To solve this, the OpenCSG context can be set to some unique integer identifier of the OpenGL window. OpenCSG then creates/uses OpenGL resources in the render() function per context. The function freeResources() frees OpenGL resources for the currently active OpenCSG context.

CSG grid


Download OpenCSG-1.6.0.tar.gz. The archive has no dependencies that must be provided externally. The only library that OpenCSG depends on, and which it comes with, is Glad. Glad is used to load OpenGL function pointers and for OpenGL extension checking. Note that other helper libraries, i.e., RenderTexture and GLEW, are no longer part of OpenCSG since version 1.6.0. OpenCSG comes with makefiles for Linux and with project files for Visual Studio 2019, Visual C++ 6, and Dev-C++ 5. It is released under the GPL version 2 or newer.

Older versions are still available for download:
OpenCSG version 1.4.2 and before were GPL version 2 only.

Development snapshots may be pulled from github.

CSG columns


Currently, I know of the following applications making use of OpenCSG:

Icon for OpenSCAD OpenSCAD is a software for creating solid 3D CAD objects by means of a scripting language. It supports interactive preview of the CSG geometry as well as exporting the final geometry as 3D model. There are precompiled binaries for Linux, Windows, and MacOS X.
Ayam-Icon Ayam is a 3D modelling environment for the RenderMan interface, running on Unix, Win32, and Mac OS X. Since version 1.8, Ayam provides the plugin aycsg for real-time CSG preview of complex CSG hierarchies using OpenCSG as rendering library.
Image-based View Frustum Application Screenshot Image-based Visual Frustum Intersection. A scientific project to reconstruct and visualize the 3D shape of an object, based on some projections of the object gathered by camera's around. The algorithm is capable of dealing with refractive distortions when the object is inside a water bowl.
Icon for KoraX CSG-Editor koraX's CSG Editor. This editor for MS Windows allows to compose textured CSG shapes from a set of predefined primitives. The application contains a very good online help that depicts nicely what CSG is about, and that furthermore contains some tutorial how to create 1) a graphical widget and 2) a pipe.
CSG concave shape


I have developed the algorithms for OpenCSG in my time as research assistent at HPI at the University Potsdam. In this time the following publications about OpenCSG and about image-based CSG rendering have been written:


F. Kirsch, J. Döllner: Rendering Techniques for Hardware-Accelerated Image-Based CSG. Journal of WSCG, 12(2):221-228, 2004.

This paper gives an introduction to image-based CSG rendering and describes the two techniques that are used in OpenCSG to accelerate rendering compared to older implementations: Visibility transfer using textures and occlusion queries for the SCS algorithm.


F. Kirsch, J. Döllner: OpenCSG: A Library for Image-Based CSG Rendering. Proceedings of the FREENIX / Open Source Track, 2005 USENIX Annual Technical Conference, 129-140, 2005.

This paper describes OpenCSG itself. It concentrates on the API, explaining internal implementation details only as shortly as possible. It also outlines possible non-obvious uses of OpenCSG.


F. Kirsch: Entwurf und Implementierung eines computergraphischen Systems zur Integration komplexer, echtzeitfähiger 3D-Renderingverfahren. Published online, URN: urn:nbn:de:kobv:517-opus-6079, 2005.

My doctoral dissertation (in german) describes an approach for integration and combination of several rendering techniques using a scene graph system. As such, it contains a long chapter covering CSG rendering.

CSG columns


  1. Can I render a shape with different colors? The documentation says I must not change the primary color in the function of my class for primitives, since OpenCSG uses the color for internal purposes.

    You can shade your shapes with whatever color you want. While your primitive objects for use in OpenCSG must not use the primary color, after calculating z-values with OpenCSG you are free to render the same geometry with primary colors.

  2. Does OpenCSG require a stencil buffer?

    You must setup a stencil buffer in your application when rendering concave primitives or when using DepthComplexitySampling. Internally, the stencil buffer is always needed in OpenCSG when rendering into the offscreen frame buffer object.

  3. Can OpenCSG calculate the geometry of a CSG expression?

    No, unfortunately this is not possible using image-based CSG algorithms (at least not in a trivial way). If you require this, have a look at other libraries such as the GTS library.

  4. What are the dependencies of the example program?

    The OpenCSG example requires GLUT or FreeGLUT. One of these libraries is likely pre-installed with your favorite linux installation. Visual Studio users should compile or download FreeGLUT, or with older versions of Visual Studio they may install GLUT for Windows. Dev-C++ users can install the precompiled GLUT for Mingw32.

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OpenCSG is copyrighted by Florian Kirsch and by the Hasso-Plattner-Institute at the University of Potsdam (HPI), Germany.

Since version 1.5.0, you can license OpenCSG by terms of the GNU GPL, version 2 or later. This means that you may release applications or libraries that use (parts of) OpenCSG (a) only if you release the complete source code of your application or library and (b) only if you release it under the GPL license. Versions before 1.5.0 could be licensed under the GPL version 2 only.

Note that OpenCSG comes with code that is not under copyright of the HPI or Florian Kirsch. This is the code generated from Glad. This code is licensed under the terms described in the generated source files, and at the Glad github repository.

CSG columns

© 2002-2023, Florian Kirsch, e-mail: mail at opencsg dot org,
2002-2005 Hasso-Plattner-Institute Potsdam.
Last change: 15-Sep-2023